Prevent Sick Buildings: Why Positive Building Pressure Matters

Can a building get sick? I’ll give you the answer up front: Yes, sure, most definitely — a building can get “sick.” You may ponder… “But how can a building become sick? It is an inanimate object. It doesn’t live and breathe like humans!” On the contrary, your building is a living object. The main factor making your building come alive is its people: your customers, employees, and outside partners (think mail delivery or an overnight cleaning crew). Let’s dive into what factors can make a building sick and why maintaining positive building pressure is so important in prevention.

What Makes a Building Come Alive?

First, consider what may make your building come alive (or ultimately “infect” it):

  • Supplies
    The products you bring in (from any point of origin) may have outside contaminants or be perishable. As you know, perishables may emanate odors or fumes.
  • Chemicals
    You must account for chemicals or cleaning supplies in their controlled rooms (where exhaust is extremely important). 
  • Restrooms
    Consider the restroom facilities. Restrooms, especially those open to the general public (i.e. in a lobby area) can encounter high volumes of traffic and behaviors that may not meet sanitary standards. 
  • HVAC System(s)
    Your HVAC system is a key element bringing your building to life. With proper cleaning and maintenance, they are designed to provide comfort on demand. Heating and cooling are crucial amenities that have grown to be a must-have and are mandated by federal and local guidelines. 

When you take all these factors into account, it’s easier to understand how a building can become “sick.”

Sick Building Syndrome symptoms

Facility Managers: How to Prevent Sick Buildings

So how can a facility manager or building owner help to prevent sickness in a facility? As a professional in the HVAC industry, my primary goal is to earn your trust to maintain the wellness of your building’s HVAC system. Think about it — you can’t control others’ actions. There is no way to determine someone’s state of health as they are in your establishment. But you can control the HVAC system and make sure it is properly maintained to be a healthy system!

A little-known fact about HVAC systems that I will stress the importance: FRESH OUTSIDE AIR IS NEEDED TO MAINTAIN A POSITIVE BUILDING PRESSURE AT ALL TIMES. What does this mean, and why is it important?

  1.  Your restaurant, retail store or office building, has many moving parts to bring it alive, has to breathe. Like any living thing, it requires oxygen to replace the carbon dioxide. The equation should result in bringing in a greater amount of fresh air than the carbon dioxide, chemicals, fumes/odors, and cooking effluents that the building creates. When this happens, there should be a slight positive pressure from the inside of your establishment that pushes outward at your doors and drive-thru windows.  A proper HVAC test and balance (TAB) by an NEBB-Certified firm like Melink can help you achieve this goal.  

  2. A common oversight that people make is assuming, “My building is positive. We’re in good shape.” But how sure are they that the lungs of the HVAC system are clean and free of operational damages? Many times, I have encountered damaged and clogged filtration components within an HVAC system that may lead to costly repairs to your equipment and structural damages:
  • Clogged or missing outside air intake filters
  • Clogged, missing or inadequate air filters
  • Clogged evaporator and condenser coils
  • Clogged and inadequate fan blower wheels
  • Mold and mildew
  • Trapped small animals that lead to contaminations
  • Contaminated duct work that eventually shows up on the supply, return and exhaust grilles throughout the establishment 
Checking HVAC ductwork for positive building pressure

All these issues work together to create a sick building.  The opposite of positive pressure is that dreaded negative pressure. Every time your facility’s doors open, all of the outside air conditions are sucked into the building.  These elements can be hot or cold air, humidity, airborne pathogens, and odors. The humidity attaches to the chilled supply diffusers and grilles, creating moisture buildup that drips onto your floors, tables, customers, and clients.

Checking HVAC filters for positive building pressure

Of course, it’s not feasible for a facility manager to know the ins and outs of every HVAC system of every facility he/she manages. So let us do the work for you! Melink Corporation’s T&B technicians can be your eyes and ears to help your facilities maintain positive building pressure. We are an army of application engineers with skilled LEED and NEBB certifications. Our company is nationwide and has more than 30 years of experience. Along with services that will help you on your way to a healthy building, we offer a monitoring system and demand ventilation systems that will alert you when problems or concerns arise.  These services, along with reliable routine maintenance will minimize uninterrupted service to your most important people. We can help you protect your customers, employees, and outside partners from sick buildings.

Love Is in the Air (and So Are Dangerous Gasses)

With Valentine’s Day upon us, we can’t ignore the fact that love is in the air and all around. The season of love and Cupid’s magic are hard to ignore. Unfortunately, lovebirds, that isn’t the only thing you will find in the air this season. Dangerous gasses called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are lurking everywhere (up to 10 times higher indoors), and could be turning your stomach butterflies into nausea and vomiting.

VOCs include a variety of chemicals that are emitted as gasses from certain solids and liquids, including common household products. These are products that most people have around their house and place of business, such as paints, aerosol sprays, cleansers and disinfectants, hobby supplies, and even dry-cleaned clothing! Who knew? Items that may be littered around your space are known to cause both short-term and long-term adverse health effects including but not limited to irritation, nausea, liver and kidney damage, and possibly cancer. Scary stuff, right?

So how do you reduce your risk and exposure to these nasty gasses? First and most importantly, increasing ventilation when using these types of products is key. For commercial buildings, experienced HVAC engineers can ensure a building has enough air changes per hour to properly replace the indoor air with fresh outside air.  This measurement is determined by the building capacity, as well as how the space will be used. For example, by code, a restaurant requires an average of 20 CFM of fresh air per person, so if the max occupancy is five people, the building will require 100 CFM of fresh air at minimum to ensure a healthy amount of air changes per hour.

While this seems like a simple way to ensure a building’s air is not filled with common air pollutants including VOCs, this is not always the case. The amount of outside air entering the building is set by the rooftop unit (RTU) to match the designed value for the facility. This value is then verified through a test and balance technician measuring the airflow and resetting it to the proper amount. Without this final verification, your building may be receiving improper amounts of fresh air, which can leave your building and its occupants susceptible to higher concentrations of air pollutants.

Other steps to take to reduce risk in your home and business are:

  • Follow label instructions carefully. Always meet or exceed label precautions.
  • Throw away partially full containers of old or unneeded chemicals safely. Only buy in quantities you will use soon.
  • Keep exposure to paint strippers, adhesive removers, aerosol spray paints, auto exhaust, and tobacco smoke to a minimum.
  • Use integrated pest management techniques to reduce the need for pesticides.

Don’t let VOCs ruin the love for you this Valentine’s Day! Take the right steps to minimize your exposure and keep the magic of the season alive.

Searching for Melink HVAC Technicians: It’s Recruiting Season!

If it’s January, then it’s “Recruiting Season” for Melink T&B Field Service Technicians. Each year, our goal is to source, engage, and win the best technicians to join our national network of HVAC technicians.

Melink technician diagnosing HVAC unit

Becoming a Melink Technician

So, what characteristics does it take to become a Melink T&B Field Service Technician?  That answer lies in our Melink Core Competencies:

Extreme Ownership – A Melink HVAC Technician takes personal responsibility for outcomes and perseveres to face resistance or setbacks. A Melink Technician pursues everything with energy and drive.

Subject Matter Expertise – A Melink HVAC Technician is the on-site expert. Every technician excels at his/her professional function, regularly demonstrating and sharing depth of knowledge and skills. Being a quick study is key in success.

Clear & Candid Communication – A Melink HVAC Technician ensures that information is passed on to others who should be kept informed and has the courage to say what needs to be said.

Building Collaborative Relationships – A Melink HVAC Technician develops trusting, respectful, and professional relationships with colleagues and customers over time.

Planning & Problem-Solving – A Melink HVAC Technician takes the steps necessary to deliver high-quality results on time and on budget.

Continuous Improvement – A Melink HVAC Technician constantly seeks ways to improve the internal and external customer experience by delivering better, faster, or less expensive products and services.

When looking to take the next steps in your career, make sure to take the time to truly understand the meaning behind of each of Melink’s Core Competencies. Going through these will not only help you in your job search but help you to be an overall better employee, no matter your future career path.

Are You the Next Melink HVAC Technician?

At Melink, our goal is to provide the best “White Glove” service for our customers.  We want you if you:

  • Can travel 100%
  • Have electrical and controls experience
  • Received HVAC training and education
  • Have a strong work ethic
  • Possess a high level of self-accountability
  • Have strong organizational skills
  • Have high emotional intelligence, a positive attitude, and a service-leadership philosophy

Does it sound like you would be a great fit for our team? Click here to learn more and meet with Melink’s Human Resources Team.

Why Recommission?

Building commissioning is often viewed as a one-time procedure performed during a building’s initial construction, among hundreds of other tasks.  (That is, if commissioning was even performed at all… which is another topic in itself!)  An investment was made into ensuring that the newly constructed systems were indeed installed correctly and operating properly.  So then, if a building was already commissioned, why would you want to recommission it?

Before answering that, we should first define what recommissioning is.  Simply put, recommissioning is a process that helps get a building back to the operational performance that was intended from the initial design and construction.  It’s much like a tune-up for your car.  Commissioning occurs during the design and construction of a building.  Add the “re” to commissioning, and it implies that you are “commissioning again” an existing building that was previously commissioned.  In a similar way, when you add “retro” to commissioning, it implies that you are “going back and commissioning” an existing building that was never commissioned before.  According to the Building Efficiency Initiative, “it can often resolve problems that occurred during design or construction, or address problems that have developed throughout the building’s life as equipment has aged, or as building usage has changed.”

Recommissioning is often and best done on a planned, recurring basis.  This is because buildings change over time.  Just because a building’s systems were optimized when it was first commissioned, doesn’t mean they will stay that way forever.  As with most things, building systems wear and their performance degrades over time.  For example, a building may undergo a remodel or the way its space is used may change, pieces of equipment fail and are replaced, control setpoints are tampered with, and sensors fall out of calibration.  Recommissioning can help to diagnose the source of issues and identify building systems that have drifted, leading to higher energy costs and other negative side-effects.  Such issues include duct air leakage, HVAC and lighting left on while a space is unoccupied, airflow not balanced, dampers and economizers not working properly, improper setup or failure of controls, and much more.

Identifying and correcting these issues through a recommissioning process will lead to significant energy savings.  According to a report by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, commissioning produced 16% median energy savings in existing buildings with a payback time of 1.1 years.  Furthermore, recommissioning results in a healthier and more comfortable environment for the building occupants, which is not as easy to quantify as energy savings but is even more impactful to an organization’s success.

An Outsiders Take on T&B (Co-op Edition)

Well, my tenure at Melink is coming to an end as I prepare to return back to the University of Cincinnati to complete my degree in Mechanical Engineering.  As I look back on the experience, I can say that I have learned an incredible amount about the HVAC industry, and more specifically our roll in the niche market of air test & balancing.

Before my time with Melink, the thought of air balancing never really crossed my mind.  Although I was unaware of this process, the symptoms of unbalanced buildings were always right in front of my eyes.  Such examples include the blast of air coming from opening the door of a building, droplets of water falling from ductwork, uncomfortable humid buildings, or trying the pull open a door that feels like it’s being sucked back in; these all too common symptoms seem to plague buildings and stores across the world.  My time with Melink cleared up my misconceptions relating to such occurrences, as I learned that these are typical symptoms of an unbalanced building.

As I stepped into the role of a sales engineer, I had the chance to learn about these issues and how we solve them.  The simple solution is to provide a test and balance.  While many construction projects typically require a test and balance, conditions still change over time, and in other cases, a proper balance may have never been completed in the first place.  This is where Melink comes into the picture.

My day-to-day work revolved around providing testing & balancing services to customers, whether they were current national account customers, developing customers, general contractors, facility managers, etc.  When looking into balancing projects, my role was to address the scope of work needed and discuss any issues on-site, so we can provide the greatest value during our visit.  This process involves examining mechanical documents, determining the equipment on-site, and estimating how long it will take a technician to perform the job.

Despite that fact that testing & balancing had never crossed my mind until I joined Melink, I can now say that I am a firm believer in the importance of this process for both HVAC equipment and building health.  Even in my absence from the company, I will never be able to walk into a building again without taking a look around at the mechanical systems and thinking to myself, “Hmm, this place could really benefit from a proper test & balance”.

Talking to Kitchen Staff About Restaurant Air Balance

Muppet chef

Regarding restaurant air balance, negative building pressure costs restaurant facility managers thousands of dollars every year.  Uncomfortable kitchen staff, as well-intentioned as they may be, are often instigators of a facility’s air circulation becoming off balance.  Hot and bothered, they’ll tinker with the thermostats or other HVAC components in an effort to come into agreement with the air they are working in.  The issue is that most kitchen staff aren’t aware of the sensitivities of a balanced HVAC system and may make an adjustment that throws the system into inefficient operation, causing the entire operation to cost much more than necessary.

During your next site visit or conversation with on-site managers, restaurant facility managers should take a moment to explain the basics of air balance to kitchen staff.

Here are some points to explain:

1. The single most important thing to explain is that HVAC equipment works as “one system.”  What happens in the kitchen can and will affect the comfort in the dining areas, and vice versa.

Kitchen hood air transfer graphic

Graphic provided by Trane

2.  Explain basic building pressure.

  • Building pressure is a large factor of customer comfort, kitchen hood smoke capture, condensation issues, energy savings, door pull issues, insect issues. etc.
  • Kitchen airflow is the largest contributing factor to the overall building pressure.
  • High velocity airflow near kitchen hoods (like from a portable fan) can adversely effect the ability of those hoods to capture and remove heat and smoke.

3.  Emphasize regular cleaning of grease filters.

  • The kitchen staff and/or the building owner should ensure that all kitchen hood grease filters are being periodically cleaned.
  • They are in place to protect the exhaust duct work, exhaust fans, and the discharge area of the exhaust fans, which is typically the rooftop.
  • Grease filters can quickly become clogged if not thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis. Also, these should also be replaced immediately if they are damaged.

HVAC cover

Hiring an experienced and professional TAB firm to perform a test and balance on your HVAC system periodically can provide confidence that your systems are balanced and operating properly.  This will ensure that your kitchen staff is operating under the best conditions and that your customers are comfortable.